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Big science needs Mickey Mouse models

Image of the inside of the TRIUMF laboratory's cyclotron.
The TRIUMF laboratory is an example of a big science project. It currently houses the world's largest cyclotron particle accelerator. It is 18 meters in diameter and accelerates protons 45 kilometers (28 miles) at a maximum energy of 520 mega-electron volts. Image courtesy TRIUMF.

Imagine a world where a researcher hooks up a computer directly to an experiment and has it generate models instead of him or her. This computer would test the models against new observations and then modify the experiments without any human intervention. Would this still be called science? Apparently not, according to Byron Jennings, deputy science division head at TRIUMF, Canada's national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics. Computers with answers are not enough. Models are products of the human mind and we add intuition, or feeling, to understand the results.

Jennings argued in the Quantum Diaries blog, a website populated with the writings of the daily lives of particle physicists around the world, that big science such as the Large Hadron Collider, in Switzerland, would be incomplete without 'Mickey Mouse' science. That is, the simple models that are useful in checking the results of complex computer calculations. If a researcher can reproduce the main trends of the results, errors can be identified, for example.

These simple models can give insight into how the more complex models can be improved and what assumptions aren't necessary. Also, simple models help reveal which aspects of a model are important to reproduce and which are coincidental.

In Jennings' opinion, simple models, most importantly, help 'people' - both laymen and experts - to understand the results.

"A prime example would be the non-relativistic quark model. Its success calculating the properties of the excited states of the proton was touted as proof of the quark model, but all it tested was the symmetries built into the calculations," Jennings said.

This links back to the first question; Jennings answered that science is ultimately a human activity. The models researchers produce are products of the human mind. They provide feelings, insight, and understanding of results, which computers, with the answers, cannot give to us. It appears that future projects such as the Square Kilometre Array or the Ocean Observatories Initiative may still require the simple to validate the big.

- Adrian Giordani

You can read the full article on theQuantum Diaries blog.

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